Secrets of the Conservative Media Machine

To borrow a Sarah Palin aphorism, after their election defeat in 2008, conservatives didn't retreat, they "reloaded." Instead of finding new solutions to public policy problems or seriously reevaluating Bush's failures, conservatives focused almost solely on new ways to communicate their old ideas. To do so, they looked to their natural allies in corporate marketing for inspiration — and they looked to the Left for imitation. The result has been a recent and profound turnaround that has allowed the Right the bury Obama's message and dominate the political debate.

Historical right-wing domination of the media

Traditionally, conservatives have almost always dominated direct mail solicitations, retained the best pollsters money could buy and paid for the most celebrated advertising makers. Message discipline is the first lesson for any Republican politician. Talk radio? unquestionably controlled by conservatives.

Cable news? Fox News couldn't be more right-wing and popular. The Right had also dominated the Internet for most of the Internet's fledging history. Throughout the 1990s and for much of President George W. Bush's first term, conservatives easily ruled online news. And much of that initial sucess stemmed from foundations and entrepreneurial pioneers such as Matt Drudge, creator of the wildly popular headline-aggregating site Drudge Report, and Jim Robinson of the news message board Free Republic. The pair formed a symbiotic relationship. Drudge, who played a role in breaking the Monica Lewinsky story, made waves in the media with scoops on the latest Clinton scandals, and Free Republic provided a platform for conservatives to share conspiratorial perspectives and to organize their own rallies and events. Many of the angry mobs hounding Clinton at public events were mobilized by Free Republic. The impeachment rally that was organized by the Free Republic, "Treason Is the Reason," featured Republican lawmakers and writer Christopher Hitchens.

Their efforts were enhanced by well-funded conservative investments in Internet technology. The first major foray into purely ideological online news came from the Heritage Foundation, which worked with National Review magazine to create Town Hall in 1992. The Town Hall bulletin board forum on Compuserve required users to pay to dial into a central terminal to share information and read conservative publications. It later morphed into an Internet site with links to conservative opinion pieces, studies and syndicated columns from newspapers. Town Hall helped organize the top conservative arguments, studies and articles. The one-stop shop, similar in utility to Drudge Report, provided direction for various conservative web sites, talk radio and Republican politicians to get on the same message.

Conservatives maintained their dominance by constantly making investments in online news portals. In 2000, James Glassman, previously a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, launched a web site called TechCentralStation with the corporate lobbying firm DCI Group. The web site, with funds from corporations such as Microsoft and ExxonMobil, published reports from right-wing think tanks as news pieces. Glassman, who later became the director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, eventually closed TechCentralStation after a round of criticism that the site was essentially a smoke screen for corporate propaganda. In 2004, Bush strategists hired a number of firms to develop online tools to help supporters place op-eds and letters to the editor, well before MoveOn adopted a similar tactic. As even Karl Rove conceded, conservatives held an advantage in online news through 2004 — but the Right lost its edge after Bush's victory over John Kerry.

Change in media environment

Conservatives soon slipped to second place in the media war. Comfortable controlling the gears of government for so long, the Right had largely ignored the rapidly shifting media landscape. John McCain, for instance, used an outdated emailing technology and had no functioning social network of his own. By Election Day, 2008, the Republican Party did not even have its own national list of supporters they could reach through text messages. While candidate Barack Obama talked about hope and change, an entire universe of liberal web sites lobbed attacks and criticism every day at the McCain-Palin ticket. There were structural reasons for this decline. During the latter half of the Bush administration, triumphant Republican consultants who had won in 2004 largely with traditional spending on television ads, telemarketing and direct mail had every incentive to encourage the party and the right-wing movement to continue spending on traditional outlets. Many television consultants receive up to a 15 percent cut of an entire advertising buy — which of course can be many of millions of dollars during an election season. Moving to online and nontraditional communications would result in a financial loss for some of these consultants, who doubled as advisors to the Republican National Committee and contractors to major conservative foundations.

Yet, while Republicans were expanding their traditional marketing strategies, some of the most cutting-edge corporate advertising campaigns of the 21st century intentionally abandoned using billboards, television commercials and other traditional forms of branding. Ironically taking their cues from the socialist writer Naomi Klein — whose book "No Logo" detailed a world alienated by the over-abundance of corporate brands on every T-shirt, building and bus — brand managers skillfully slipped their products into the background of movies, seemingly amateur blog posts and the most popular YouTube channels. The corporate public relations firm Edelman, one of many advertising and marketing behemoths that specialize in this form of stealth salesmanship, carefully chronicled how the public shifted toward trusting "peer-to-peer" endorsements of ideas and products. They found that one of the efficient ways to mediate peer-to-peer marketing is through impersonal social networking and online content platforms. The USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism found that 80 percent of Internet users considered the Internet to be an important source of information for them in 2008 — up from 66 percent in 2006 — and already higher than television, radio and newspapers. By 2010, USC found that over 82 percent of Americans were regular Internet users.

Edelman published a study, "The Social Pulpit," revealing the various ways the 2008 Obama campaign wove campaign engagement into the social media habits of his supporters, from ethnic social networking web sites like Black Planet to innovative campaign widgets for local bloggers. Ironically, the study was written in consultation with Mike Krempasky, an Edelman executive who also helped found the conservative blog Redstate (a blog that duplicated the diary system of the left-wing blog DailyKos). Krempasky would later assist various corporations and right-wing blogs in deploying Obama campaign tactics to boost the nascent Tea Party movement.

However, out of power in 2006 and 2008, it was the Left that had a greater incentive to experiment with alternative methods for organizing and delivering their ideas to the public, and it was the Left that took the lead in the tactics proposed by Krempasky and others. Simon Rosenberg of the New Politics Institute and other left-leaning think tanks contributed resources to developing best practices for new communication tools as well as opportunities for incubating talent. Democratic campaigns sought outsiders adept at online strategy. Progressives developed online fund-raising schemes, such as Act Blue, and experimented with new ways of connecting with voters, such as targeted SMS text messages. The Obama campaign's decision to announce the selection of Obama's running mate via text message netted an additional 2 million cell phone numbers to its database, which could then be used to plug voters into other election season notices. The unprecedented investments from the Left coincided with rapid shifts in the media landscape. Perhaps most important, much of the institutional assistance simply buoyed left-wing initiatives that began organically, like Dailykos or MoveOn. As the progressive "blogosphere" swelled with traffic and influence during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, the momentum gave the impression that liberal bloggers would always be the prevailing force on the Left.

"Don't retreat, instead reload!"

Much of the right-wing's resurgence is due to its intense investment in technology and communications. Republicans, as well as right-wing conservatives, realized that their image could be salvaged if repackaged properly. And the most discussed post-2008 election concern was the advantage held by the Left in communication infrastructure. In a December 2008 reflection piece titled the "Roots of Defeat," Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini wrote in the National Review that progressive news sites, like the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, were the constant purveyors of "attack memes" against the conservative movement and its candidates. Talking Points Memo had led the liberal blogosphere's mobilization against President Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005. In addition to its rapid news coverage, the web site posted the phone numbers of Democratic politicians who had indicated support for Bush's proposal and encouraged readers to call. The groundswell of opposition from bloggers, then the general public, marked the first significant policy defeat for President Bush. As Ruffini noted, the defeat punctured Bush's "aura of invincibility and presage[d] the death spiral to come." ThinkProgress, where I began working in 2009, had helped expose much of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's relationship with the Bush administration, and Talking Points Memo broke the story of the Bush Justice Department's systematic political firings of U.S. Attorneys around the country. As the 2008 election unfolded, the McCain campaign's positions and statements were instantly fact checked and scrutinized by leading progressive web sites. Ruffini observed that progressive blogs did actual research and reporting while most conservative bloggers were "generally commentators and not reporters." He also noted that the Right lacked many of the technological innovations employed by Barack Obama's campaign, and, more important, lacked a powerful online megaphone for its ideological goals.

Tags: fox news, republican party, right-wing media, talk radio

    • Lee Fang
    • Lee Fang is an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute and a San Francisco-based journalist covering the intersection of lobbying, politics, and political movements. He is a contributing writer for the Nation, and has a book slated to appear in early 2013 on the campaign by conservatives to block President Obama's domest...

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